As the AP reported on the chaos and confusion surrounding the ever-changing list of missing people in the wake of California wildfire that killed at least 85 people, our reporters set out to try to track down more of those people and to show that they were findable, even though they continued to appear on the list of missing, and to show that hundreds were likely not really missing at all.
Dixie Singh, No. 158 on the list, was surprised to get a call from the AP, saying she was “very much alive,” and all her friends and family knew it. San Francisco reporter Jocelyn Gecker tracked her down through a public records search by AP News and Information Center researcher Jennifer Farrar.
Meanwhile, Sacramento correspondent Kathleen Ronayne, who has covered the aftermath of the fire, and Washington, D.C., reporter Juliet Linderman, who was in town for the week assisting on fire coverage, tracked down other stories of people who were findable – just not by the sheriff’s department. An 82-year-old woman, whose relative had intensively searched for her for three weeks, had marked herself “safe” at a Red Cross shelter the day the fire broke out on Nov. 8. But that information apparently never reached the Butte County sheriff, who had previously told AP’s Sudhin Thanawala that his department was regularly checking in with Red Cross officials and cross-checking its list of missing and safe.
Gecker’s story laid out how easy it was to find some of the people and highlighted the lapses in the sheriff’s record-keeping. The story garnered 21,740 page views and nearly a minute of engagement. The story got wide play throughout California and around the country, appearing on member websites with photos by an AP photographer and photos Gecker worked to get that showed Singh and her partner in happier times.
For their collaborative exclusive on a key lingering aspect of the deadly Camp Fire, the team of Gecker, Ronayne, Linderman and Farrar wins this week’s Best of the States award.